Foods with high nutritional value

Are You Getting Enough of the Right Nutrients?

By thinking more about the foods you eat and making a few small changes, you can ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs!

When it comes to what we eat, we all have our own preferences. Some people like to eat a high protein, low carbohydrate diet. Others may follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Each one provides its own health benefits, but whatever your preference is, it’s important to ensure you’re getting enough of the most vital nutrients.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans done by the Department of Health and Human Services, many Americans aren’t getting enough of four vital nutrients – Vitamin D, calcium, potassium and dietary fiber. Over time, when we don’t get enough of these nutrients, it can lead to a wide range of health issues affecting your bones, teeth, gut, blood pressure, heart and more.

Learn more about the importance of these four nutrients and what foods you can add to your diet to ensure you’re getting enough of them.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is important because it helps your body absorb calcium, which is one of the main building blocks of your bones. Vitamin D also impacts your nervous system, immune system and muscles. When you have a vitamin D deficiency, it means your body isn’t getting enough to stay healthy, and it can lead to a number of health issues, including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased risk of falls
  • Fragility fractures
  • Recent studies also show an association between vitamin D deficiency and cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and depression

According to the Cleveland Clinic, vitamin D deficiency is more prevalent than ever – affecting about one billion people worldwide. The amount of vitamin D you need depends on your age and your risk factors. Talk to your health care provider about whether you may be at risk for a vitamin D deficiency. You can ask for a simple blood test, go over how much vitamin D you should aim to get each day and ask whether a supplement may be an option for you.

Here are some foods to boost your vitamin D intake:

  • Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel
  • Fish liver oils
  • Mushrooms
  • Egg yolks
  • Cheese
  • Milk and dairy alternatives such as soy, oat and almond milk that are fortified with vitamin D
  • Foods or drinks that are fortified with vitamin D such as breakfast cereals, orange juice or yogurt

Calcium

Calcium makes up a big part of your bone structure and teeth, and it helps to keep your tissues rigid, strong and flexible. When you don’t get enough calcium, it can cause several health issues, including:

  • Osteoporosis
  • Reduced bone strength
  • Fragile bones
  • Increased risk of falls
  • Hypocalcemia (low calcium levels in your blood)
  • Dental changes and cataracts (from a long-term deficiency)

A substantial proportion of both children and adults aren’t getting enough calcium, but certain groups may be more at risk for a calcium deficiency, including postmenopausal women, the elderly (our body’s ability to absorb calcium decreases with age) and individuals who avoid eating dairy products.

Talk to your health care provider about your calcium levels. You can find calcium naturally in many foods, and you may be able to take a supplement or a multivitamin to increase the amount you’re getting. Foods high in calcium include:Woman visiting a nutritionist

  • Milk or dairy alternatives such as soy milk with added calcium
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Certain vegetables, including soybeans, collard greens, turnip greens, kale and bok choy
  • Foods fortified with calcium including tofu, fruit juices and cereals
  • Certain protein sources such as sardines and salmon

Potassium

Potassium is an electrolyte or a mineral that’s needed for your cells to function properly. Its main role in the body is to help you keep normal levels of fluid inside your cells. It can also help your muscles contract and help to maintain normal blood pressure.

Potassium deficiencies can be caused by certain medicines and antibiotics, eating disorders or laxative overuse, chronic kidney disease, undereating and excessive sweating. When you don’t get enough potassium, you may experience:

  • Muscle cramps or weakness
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • An irregular heartbeat or rhythm
  • Muscle paralysis (in severe cases)

Potassium is found naturally in many foods, including lots of fruits and vegetables, but potassium deficiency is a chronic and growing problem in the United States. As many people eat more processed food, we miss out on potassium-rich foods. Here are some good food sources for potassium:

  • Lima beans and peas
  • Baked potatoes
  • Squash
  • Bananas
  • Avocadoes
  • Carrots
  • Lean beef
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  • Oranges
  • Tuna and salmon
  • Bran
  • Milk
  • Seaweed
  • Spinach
  • Peanut butter
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Dietary Fiber

Fiber is a type of indigestible carbohydrate – meaning it passes through your body without being digested. The two types of fiber (soluble and insoluble) are critical to your health for a number of reasons. Between the two, fiber can help keep your gut healthy and move food more efficiently through your digestive system. Fiber can also help your body regulate your hunger, blood sugar levels and cholesterol, which can lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and more. However, around 95% of Americans do not get the recommended amount of fiber in their diet.

Fiber is found in a lot of different foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains. If you’re struggling to meet the recommended amount, you can also ask your health care provider about a fiber supplement. High-fiber foods include:

  • Cereals fortified with fiber
  • Popcorn
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oatmeal
  • Beans and lentils
  • Apples, pears, berries and bananas
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  • Cucumbers, peas, tomatoes and carrots
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Brown rice, barley or other substitutes for white rice
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Tips and Resources for Getting Enough of These Important Nutrients

  • Talk to your health care provider. You and your health care provider can go over your health history and discuss what medications you’re taking – both of which may contribute to certain nutritional deficiencies. You can share details about your diet and talk about whether you should add any supplements to your health care routine.
  • Start the day off right. A healthy breakfast is a great way to boost your nutrient levels, and it doesn’t have to be hard. For example, make sure your breakfast cereal or orange juice is fortified with calcium. Try oatmeal once a week and add fruit or nuts as a topping for more fiber and potassium. Eat your normal meal but add some banana or apple slices on the side.
  • Make small changes. You don’t have to change everything you’re eating to add these four nutrients to your diet. Think about small ways to get more of what you need. For example, make sure your milk or fruit juice is fortified with vitamin D or calcium. Try changing your pasta or white rice to a more nutritious option like brown rice or barley. Keep healthy snacks on hand like popcorn, fruit slices or baby carrots.Vitamin C enriched fruits and vegetables
  • Try some new recipes. If you see a food you like on the lists above but aren’t sure how to add it to your diet, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Nutrition and Food Services page for some healthy recipes like Asian Salmon and Vegetable Packets, Mediterranean Barley Salad or Apple Cinnamon Microwave Oatmeal.
  • Explore the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These guidelines offer a lot of great information, including
  • Get the support you need. If you find yourself struggling to make healthy choices or nutritious meals, consider reaching out to VA’s registered dietician nutritionists to create a personalized nutrition plan. If you’re having a hard time affording healthy food options, check out the following food assistance programs.

By thinking more about the foods you eat and making a few small changes, you can ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs!

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